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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Very, Very Big Mystery

Anyone who knows anything about me is aware of the fact that I read a lot of mysteries. Noir, thriller, suspense, historical, cozy, occult... you name the sub-genre, I read it. So I was fascinated to find out that Fred Ramsay, author of the popular Ike Schwartz mysteries, recently released a non-mystery about -- all things -- Judas Iscariot. You know, the guy the New Testament says betrayed Jesus.

On second thought, maybe Judas, which is published by Perfect Niche Press, isn’t really a non-mystery. Christianity is know for its many mysteries, such as -- if Christianity is a good thing, then why can so many of its followers do bad things? But one of it’s greatest mysteries is Judas’s behavior towards Jesus. How, I have always wondered, could an apostle who actually knew Jesus sell him out for thirty pieces of silver? Decades after I learned about the thirty pieces of silver in Sunday school, the question still baffled me. But Ramsay’s book, Judas, gives us a possible (perhaps even probable) answer.

Here’s what Ramsay says spurred him to write his surprising -- and wonderful -- book.

“I never liked the notion promoted by the authors of the gospels, that ‘the devil made him do it,’” Ramsay wrote, in an exchange of emails. “ It is much too facile and in my view disingenuous. I do not blame them for using him that way. Their purpose in writing was to tell the Jesus story. But a full account of the human frailty, misjudgment, and wrong thinking which led to the Easter event would not do much in drawing people to a growing Christian faith. It was simpler to dump on one guy.”

Before we go any farther, let me add that Ramsay is an ordained Episcopal priest and a firm believer in the Christian faith. He has never believed, though, that faith should short-circuit the brain. As an example, he reminds us of a failing of one of Christianity’s most-beloved figures. Biblical accounts tell us that the apostle Peter -- now referred to as “Saint Peter” by a large number of Christians -- denied even knowing Jesus three times the night Roman soldiers arrested Jesus.

“Remember, Judas was not the only one to betray Jesus,” Ramsay says. “Peter had his moments that night as well.”

Possessor of both a critical mind and a Ph.D. in Anatomy (he taught at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine), Ramsay did considerable hands-on research for Judas.

“What I know about religious studies I gleaned from reading, six trips to the Holy Land, and when all else failed -- and because I am an unreconstructed intuitive -- I made up,” he says. “Hey, I write fiction. You want facts, go to school; you want a story, go to the library. Seriously, I did my research and if I wasn’t sure about an event or phenomenon and couldn’t get a line on it, I left it out. I wanted to present Judas as a person with an agenda as strong, from his point of view, as that of Jesus. I believe that most professing Christians share that position with Judas. We want to do God’s thinking for him. We have a better plan. We want to read into the scriptures those ideas that support our notion of rectitude, not what God intends. Listen, how many people do you know really believe in turning the other cheek, in loving their enemies, who will give a beggar his second coat, etc.? We are more like Judas than any of us would be willing to admit.”

Which is one of the many reasons Ramsay was apprehensive about his novel’s reception. “The problem I saw with this presentation of the Gospel story (for that is what it is) lay with the positioning it vis á vis mainstream thinking,” he says. “Where the story intersects the Gospel, it is orthodox and conservative. No laughing Jesus here, no Mr. Nice Guy Rabbi Jesus working through a metaphorical Gospel. He is who Christians have traditionally maintained he is: the
second person in the Trinity. That is not a strong selling point to a post-modern mainstream publisher. On the other hand, because I, in effect, let Judas off the hook, it made the book unacceptable to the conservative mainstream Christian press. A dilemma.”

The dilemma made finding a publisher difficult, and almost impossible, Ramsay admits. “The audience I wanted to reach, the marginal Christian, the non-believers, would have a hard time sorting through a mixed message. My friends on the right insist that only the message as delivered should be used to evangelize. My friends on the left insist that the Gospel as delivered is not marketable to a post-modern world and cite the Jesus Seminar and other ‘scholarly’ sources to support their own disbelief. One agent who critiqued the book (before turning it down) said ‘If you make Jesus gay, I can sell this thing.’ I said, in response, ‘I may well be going to Hell, but not for that, thank you.’ You see the problem. It is the same in many aspects of twenty-first century America. One has to either be for or against——right or left, one’s faith should be biblically inerrant or wholly metaphorical. So we don’t debate, we yell at each other. We march for and against. It is a knee-jerk society and people my age despair for a country that has lost its sense of civility and willingness to consider alternatives without judgment.”

Judas took Ramsay many years to write. Because of the political/religious polarization in so much of American life, it took almost as long to find a publisher.

“I started writing it in 1996 or 97, before I retired,” he says. “I had no writing skills so the first drafts had all the beginner’s mistakes and then some. Eventually I worked through nearly two dozen rewrites, had professional editors and theologians look at it. So from start to final edition, fourteen years. Then, I took it to the Southern California Writers Conference and was told by the staff member to whom I submitted pages for an advance read and critique, that I had a Best Seller on my hands. Wow! I had an agent then -- a bad one whom I finally had to fire. It took nearly another year to find a legitimate agent who flogged the book to all the major houses. On the basis of the feedback they received from various acquisition editors I rewrote large sections of the book. They still couldn’t sell it and after two years, [my agent] finally gave up and dumped me as a client. I tried to sell it myself to smaller houses but failed.”

The book finally found a home at Perfect Niche, a subsidiary of Poisoned Pen Press.

Readers with an historical and/or theological turn of mind, might find Ramsay’s approach to the character of Judas, as well as other figures in the Gospels, interesting -- to say the least. Where in the world did Ramsay get all that stuff? Even more puzzling, how was he able to write a completely different account of Judas’s life, yet keep it from conflicting with the story told in the Gospels?

“The advantage that comes from writing about Judas is that we know little or nothing about him,” he answers. “We know his name, what he did, that he was one of the Twelve Apostles, the only disciple Jesus ever called ‘friend,’ and he was trusted with the money. Anything else is a gloss. I write about Mary from Magdala as well. Again, we know very little about her. Tradition has her as a prostitute. But there is nothing in the Gospel to support that notion. What we do know about Mary was that she stayed with the disciples to the end, was (maybe) the first to witness the risen Lord and was relieved of seven demons by Jesus. Her story, included in the book, uses these bits of information to assemble a plausible history for her. She suffered from multiple personality disorder (it is suggested) and that disorder led her into situations that might be considered by a conflicted society (the first century Israel) as less than moral. All bases covered. See, I believe every tradition is based on at least some bit of reality. That the later church decided to ascribe an immoral life to her had to have some connection to fact. That it became enlarged and distorted is the nature of history.

“So it is with Judas. He did a terrible thing. What sort of person, given what we know about him, would do that? Once I jettisoned the ‘devil made him do it’ excuse, it was just a matter of creating a plausible character -- one whose motivation would be consistent with the act. Key word: plausible. The trick here was to assume that Judas was a person of his time and culture. That’s critical. Assuming he was Jewish at some level, and remember, ‘Jewish’ meant many things to many people in the first century. (The Mishnah, which would define Judaism for the next ten or fifteen centuries was not yet formulated. There were the same sorts of divisions in Judaism then as we see in Protestantism today.) But there were commonalities and certainties and universal expectations. Judas would respond to them in predictable ways given the right circumstances.”

Ramsay considered the laws and customs of the time when portraying another character, too. “Consider Caiaphas, the High Priest, who is also painted a darker villain than perhaps he should be. In that culture, someone presuming to be God or of a divine nature akin to God was a blasphemer of the worst sort and because the God of the Hebrew Scriptures was viewed, generally, as an angry one given to punishing the entire nation if He sensed any slippage in their adherence to His Law, to promote such an heretical notion would bring certain retribution from the Almighty. Thus the high priest can say very reasonably, ‘Better that one man die than the whole nation suffer.”

In other words, context should be considered before rendering judgement.

“Certain behaviors were expected of Jews,” Ramsay says.” The people who followed Jesus then, had two choices: Believe and (possibly) be damned, or leave his company. Many did the latter. If you were to stick around, the next choice you needed to make was: what sort of Messiah do we have here? 1.) Elijah? A forerunner -- not much will happen except the nation will slowly swing over to this new configuration. 2.) Moses? Who (without an army,) will lead us out of bondage -- some how some way, or 3.) David? Who will mount an army and slay the Philistines (the Romans.) and restore the kingship. None of them picked up on to Jesus’ central proclamation: that it would be through a change of hearts that the Kingdom would be achieved. So they dithered. Judas, I supposed, took what for him was a logical next step -- one I expect many of us would agree with -- recruit support from within the existing power structure. It was a reasonable idea then. It is a reasonable one now.”

Here Ramsay points out something else that some readers of the Gospel may have not noticed.

“Remember, Joseph of Arimathea and (we think) Nicodemas were members of the Sanhedrin. It was not like some inroads had not already been made. In retrospect (assuming that was what he did -- thirty pieces of silver, etc.) it makes perfect sense to stumble into a trap that creates the very situation Jesus knew must somehow face.

“That Judas and Jesus had a special relationship is, for me, a given. That he was an outsider viz the other eleven (or at least the Galilean contingent) is evident. That he was a scapegoat used by them to shortcut the dynamics of the Easter narrative, pretty evident. Remember, all the Gospels were written backwards. That is; their only purpose is to take the listener/reader to Easter. There was no interest on the part of their authors to establish an accurate chronology or historical record. There is precious little detail about anyone except Jesus. Their sole aim was to create a proof text for a risen Christ. Jesus was handed over to the authorities at the connivance of Judas and that was that. So, moving along -- the devil made him do it. He was a bad guy the whole time, etc. .. .done deal. Except: read Peter’s account of Judas’s activity in Acts 1:16 through 1:26.

“What I wanted to do, and I hoped succeeded in, was to write a plausible account. A story line that not only retold the account of the betrayal in human terms, but reconciled some of the discrepancies in the Gospels as well. For example in the traditional rendering, the events of the Passion narrative occur within less than a 24 hour period. Jesus is arrested, tried by Pilate, by Herod, by Pilate again, flogged, beaten and crucified. Thursday night to Friday noon. Can’t happen. Not enough time. But having him celebrate Passover with the Essenes on Tuesday gives us the time for all those things to happen.

“We are a culture that is fascinated with evil and I thought if I wanted to lure people over from the (sort of) dark side, Judas was the guy to do it. Jesus, in the book, is a character who, I hope is intriguing without being overwhelming. It wasn’t intended as a ‘Jesus Book.’ I thought that might be too much. Non-believers would not touch one of those, but a Judas book? So, with that in mind, it was easy. Where the story intersects the Gospel, with one or two exceptions, I drew from Luke’s Gospel. In the foreword I cite a few other inclusions.”

At the back of Judas, are a number of discussion questions, each designed to make the reader think even more deeply -- are perhaps argue more strongly -- on what he or she has read.

“The Study Guide was an afterthought,”Ramsey says. “Some folks asked if I would do a teaching on the book. I thought if I had something to put into their hands, it would be more meaningful. I am, as I have indicated elsewhere, an intuitive. Things like lesson plans, outlines, notes are foreign to me. Connie Collins [who designed the study questions] has had extensive experience in organizing teaching sessions, bible studies, and exercises. She has studied at Biola U, worked for Robert H. Shuller and other high profile ministries. It was a good fit. When the book was published by Perfect Niche, we folded the study guide into the book. I guess I hoped it would help market it.”

We can only wait and see. And hope. Because this is a book that deserves to be read.

Among other books, Frederick Ramsay is the author of The Ike Schwartz Mysteries, Impulse(chosen as One of the Hundred Best books of 2006, by Publishers Weekly), and Predators: A
Botswana Mystery.
Read more about Dr. Ramsay at http://www.frederickramsay.com


jennymilch said...

I'm fascinated by the nuts and bolts side of this post, ie, the publishing journey. My agent is currently marketing my own cross genre novel of literary suspense and facing some of the same marketing issues, although it does seem to fit a little more cleanly than JUDAS.

Anyway, your story of multiple rewrites in response to feedback, and searching and searching for a publisher sounds almost biblical in its intensity (if not its import)? And it's inspiring to me as Bible stories can be.

I tend to read them symbolically and it sounds like this novel offers a whole new dimension to the classic epic of betrayal and hypocrisy. Kudos to Poisoned Pen for spying a jewel--I will look for it.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

A fascinating interview! Although different, the description of this novel reminds me of THE NAME OF THE ROSE which was a great theological, philosophical mystery novel.

I suppose my novel THE INFERNO COLLECTION is really cross genre fiction as well. It's a mystery, a paranormal thriller, a romance, and a literary novel. I was fortunate that Five Star/Gale published it. Most publishers do want fiction to fit into a neat category so that it will "find a specific audience."

Chris V. said...

Great interview and sounds like an interesting book that doesn't 'butcher' Christian belief, but sounds plausible. One I'll put on my reading list.

Eunice Boeve said...

Very interesting post. I have always wondered about Judas's role in the story. How he could live in Jesus presence and still betray him. I'm a Christian, a believer in the Lord Jesus, and although I read and draw comfort from the Bible, I am not a blind follower of every word. In fact,once a passage appeared that was meant only for me at that particular time, a passage I could not find even the next day. I definitely want to read this book

Kathleen Ernst said...

Sounds fascinating. My dad is a Biblical scholar (and minister), and I know that little is as simple as it may seem. Thanks for sharing.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Sounds fascinating. My dad is a Biblical scholar (and minister), and I know that little is as simple as it may seem. Thanks for sharing.

Heidiwriter said...

This is fascinating! What a wonderful "what if" concept. It sounds like a must-read, for sure.

I wish you well with the book--I hope your early readers who predicted its Best Seller status prove to be right!

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